Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Lisnavagh House, County Carlow

DISCOVERING MY ROOTS
Irish Daily Mail, August 2011

In 1986, The Bee Gees and Eric Clapton recorded a charity single called ‘We’re the Bunburys’ about a bunch of rabbits that played cricket. The song crashed out of the charts pretty quickly. But it continued to be a hit in our house for many years. ‘Everybody wants to be a Bunbury’ was the uplifting chorus.

I grew up in a big dusty house at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains called Lisnavagh. It lies close to the village of Rathvilly, Co. Carlow, in a landscape bound by overgrown ringforts, a defiant dolmen and the last crumbling traces of an Augustinian abbey.

The corridors of our house were lined with oil portraits of poker-faced men sporting snow white wigs and sullen women in sombre shawls. As a youngster, those portraits petrified me. Their penetrating eyes chased me all the way to the safety of the kitchen.

I’ve always been obsessed by the past. That’s the legacy of having a good history teacher. If your teacher just drenched you with dates and dates, the chances are you grew up thinking history was the dullest subject ever invented.

I struck lucky and had several good teachers. But it was family history that caught my attention most and, well, specifically my family.

Who were all those people in the portraits?

In 1988, I was a bored sixteen-year-old rummaging through the attic at Lisnavagh when I plucked out an old scroll. It turned out to be a family tree, tracing the Bunburys back to 1066 when a Norman described as ‘a younger brother of the Baron de St. Pierre’ apparently arrived in England and was granted the lordship of ‘Boniface’s Borough’ in Cheshire.

As my finger trawled through the generations, I noted that the family had adopted the name ‘de Boneberi’ and, by the 14th century, the family head was a guy called Roger de Bunbury who was marshalling English troops against the French during the Hundred Years War.

In the 17th century, the tree split into the English branch and the Irish branch. It told me the Irish descended from Benjamin Bunbury who arrived in Ireland in the 1660s.

The tree stopped in about 1830 although someone had tried to pencil in a few subsequent generations. My father was about to turn 50 so I thought Geronimo, I’ll give him an updated family tree for the occasion.

And that’s the moment I became hooked on genealogy. It is the greatest jigsaw ever made. It’s deeply indulgent and utterly fascinating and it gets bigger, and juicier, every time you find a new piece.

Working out what actually happened to anyone in the distant past is a hugely speculative business. All you have to start with is a person’s name, sex and maybe his or her date of birth or death. So what do you do from there? It can be a daunting prospect.

In Ireland, we’ve evolved our genealogical research skills enormously over the past decade. There are many extremely talented genealogists operating in this country, solving family puzzles for Irish people and people of Irish origin all over the world.

There’s money in it too. If you can tell an American or an Australian which townland in Ireland their ancestors hailed from, there’s a very good chance they will come and visit that townland. And if they enjoyed the visit, they will bring their family next time.

The 1901 and 1911 census have done much to enable people to work out which townland or street their forebears were resident of 100 years ago. Such resources as Griffith’s Valuations, the Tithe reports and the specific church records can also be very helpful. Add in the wonders of Google, and the possibilities for researching one’s family history are expanding at an extraordinary rate.

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Captain Bunbury's portrait
and a photo from later life.

I specialize in producing upmarket family history books, illustrated and leather bound, profiling each generation in turn. It’s all about keeping the history flowing and well-informed, and peppering it with detail about the main events, countries, professions and people that shaped their lives. Ideally, I get as many family members involved as possible as you never know who has vital clues and images pasted into a scrapbook or framed upon their kitchen wall.

I certainly had an advantage over other families because much of our history was written on our walls. Most of the portraits were named so I was able to work out who those people were and what they did with their lives. That made them much less scary.

For instance, the guy with the very long neck who stares into the middle distance turned out to be my great-great-great grandfather, Captain William McClintock Bunbury. He was born in 1800 and joined the Royal Navy aged 12. He fought in the battle of Algiers aged 16 and spent his 20s and 30s sailing around the coasts of Africa, America and the Far East in a wooden frigate called the Samarang.

In the 1830s, the Samarang was assigned to chase down slave ships off the coast of South America. During this time, she paired up with another ship, the Beagle, and amongst those whom Captain Bunbury quaffed rum with was a young Charles Darwin, who was bound for the Galapagos.

Also on board the Samarang was the Captain’s 12-year-old cousin Leopold McClintock of Dundalk. In later life, Leopold achieved fame as the man who discovered the grim fate of Sir John Franklin’s disastrous expedition to the Arctic.

Many decades later, when the Samarang was chopped up, the Captain’s son managed to grab some of the ship’s salt-stained timbers and have a carpenter whittle them into a handsome cabinet.

Back in the attic, I found the detailed journals which the Captain kept during his naval years. He had tiny spidery writing, probably because he was scribbling with a quill by candlelight while the ship was rolling from side to side. That makes transcribing his journals a rather formidable task.

In later life, the Captain inherited Lisnavagh. A bachelor uncle offered him a huge sum of money on the basis that he build a new house. Designed by the eccentric American-born architect Daniel Robertson, the new house was probably the biggest house in County Carlow by the time of its completion. The construction took 130 men two and a half years, at a cost £16,000 [approximately €1 million in today’s money]. The same men were also employed to build new stables, haylofts, farm buildings, a sawmill, a laundry house, a schoolhouse, several outbuildings, new formal gardens and a cut-stone wall around the entirety of the estate.

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Above & Below:
Anne Lefroy, 1st Lady Rathdonnell

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Directly opposite the Captain, there’s a portrait of a scary old woman but when I look at her now, I see she is actually a pretty young girl. She was Anne Lefroy, the Captain’s sister-in-law, and she grew up in Bath. One day her cousin Tom Lefroy came to stay and became enamoured of her next-door-neighbour, Jane Austen, the novelist. Tom went on to become Chief Justice of Ireland while Anne’s husband John McClintock was created Baron Rathdonnell by Benjamin Disraeli.

I wonder if there was ever a portrait of Thomas de Bunbury. He lived in Cheshire but he was the first of the family to have an Irish link. His grandfather was thrice Mayor of Chester at a time when Chester was the favourite resort and lounging place of the Irish gentry. Amongst these was Black Tom Butler, Earl of Ormonde, a childhood sweetheart of Queen Elizabeth who was also friendly with Henry Bunbury ’s son Thomas.

When the Desmond Wars erupted in Munster in the 1580s, Lord Ormonde dispatched Thomas’s half-brother Sir William Stanley to command the garrison at Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford. And when Sir William rented the castle itself in 1585, ‘Thomas de Bunbury’ was named as an executor. Four years later, the castle passed to that legendary buccaneer Sir Walter Raleigh.

Stanley was a highly respected officer in Elizabeth’s army who served as acting Governor of Munster for a period. However, you can never be too sure of your relatives and things became somewhat dicey for the Bunburys when Stanley, a devout Catholic, switched sides and joined the Spanish on the eve of the Armada. He also backed Guy Fawkes’ ill-fated attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London.

Nonetheless, Thomas’s son Harry secured a knighthood from James I, and so began a prolonged loyalty to the Jacobite cause. During the English Civil War, Sir Harry sided with the Royalists against Cromwell. When the latter’s army smashed its’ way into Cheshire, the Bunbury’s ancestral home was burned to the ground and Sir Harry was thrown into prison and dispossessed of his lands.

Sir Harry’s fall prompted his grandsons to flee to faraway lands. His eldest grandson Thomas emigrated to Virginia and established a tobacco plantation; his descendants inter-married with their slaves and the ‘Bumbry’ family is today one of the oldest Afro-American families in Virginia boasting several lanky basketball players and an exquisite soprano called Grace Bumbry amongst their ranks.

The Benjamin Bunbury who was named on the tree as the first to come to Ireland was another of Sir Harry’s grandsons. Born in 1642, he took a lease on some of Lord Ormonde’s lands at Killerig in County Carlow circa 1666. He set his four sons up with a string of farms between Carlow town and Lisnavagh, where the first house was built in 1696.

By 1755, the house passed to his grandson, the penny-pinching Thomas Bunbury, who married the sister of a celebrated war hero. A diary Thomas wrote between 1754 and his death in 1774 documents his mounting excitement as he advanced around Ireland, increasing the family’s landholdings. He also did much to improve the quality of these lands, clearing scrubland, draining bogs and fertilizing pastures.

The pinnacle of his ambitions was reached in 1773 when his eldest son Willy married the sole heiress of a prosperous and almost certainly corrupt lawyer called Redmond Kane.

The Kane marriage netted the Bunburys a whopping £40,000, nearly €4 million in today’s money. And Thomas was evidently so overcome with excitement that he was dead within a year.

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Jane Bunbury who was killed in a horsefall in 1801.

In 1776, 32-year-old Willy Bunbury was elected Tory MP for Carlow. However, his dreams of becoming one of the shining lights of Grattan’s Parliament came a cropper when he was thrown from his horse and killed near Leighlinbridge two years later. He left two small boys and a posthumous daughter, Jane.

Horses were as dangerous as cars in centuries past. Willy’s brother-in-law died when his cloak was caught in the spokes of a passing carriage. An aunt died when she was kicked in the head by a stallion. And in 1801, another tragedy struck when Willy’s 21-year-old daughter Jane was killed in a hunting accident near Bath.

Jane was married to John McClintock, MP for Co. Louth, and a cousin of John Foster, the last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. When the Act of Union closed down the Irish Parliament in 1800, McClintock and Foster were the last two to leave the building. Both men strongly opposed the Union.

Like her father, Jane was survived by three toddlers, the second of whom was Captain Bunbury, who built the new house.

When he died in 1866, the Captain was succeeded by his 18-year-old son Tom, an officer in the Royal Scots Grays. Tom’s wife Kate was one of the Bruen girls from Oak Park outside Carlow town. He courted her on an ice skating rink in 1873 and they married the following year.

By the time the Land League was founded in 1879, Tom Bunbury had succeeded his uncle as the 2nd Baron Rathdonnell and added the substantial Drumcar estate in Co. Louth to his possessions.

Tom was one of the leading cattle breeders in Ireland during the 1890s and early 20th century. At the Spring Show of 1899, for instance, his pedigree shorthorns won a record haul of eight gold medals.

There was sadness too. In 1900, his eldest son and heir, 19-year-old Billy was shot in the leg in South Africa during a surprise attack by Boer marksmen; he died less than twelve hours later.

Tom was President of the Royal Dublin Society for many years and it was in that capacity that he ordered lemonade to be distributed amongst the Sherwood Forresters as they passed through Ballsbridge en route to defend Dublin city against the rebels of 1916. Many of those soldiers only got as far as Mount Street Bridge where they were gunned down in an ambush.

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Above: Lisnavagh House being remodeled in 1952.

In 1922, Tom was obliged to hand over the keys of the RDS’s headquarters at Leinster House to the government of the new Irish Free State; the building became Dáil Éireann.

Upon his death in 1929, Tom was succeeded by his second son Tim who had served in Africa and the Swiss Alps during the First World War. Tim’s wife Ethel was born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) where her mother had famously survived a brawl with a sloth bear. Unfortunately Ethel was not long for the world and, having begotten one son, she died in 1922 aged 37.

The son was Bill, my grandfather, who was born in 1914. Educated at Cambridge, he was married in 1937 to Pamela Drew, a fun-loving artist from the Lake District whose ancestry combined banking and printing. Just weeks before their marriage Bill’s father died and he became 4th Baron Rathdonnell at the age of 23.

During the Second World War, Bill served with the Hussars, commanding a team that helped round up several of the Nazi leaders, including Hitler’s successor Admiral Doenitz in June 1945.

Much of the main house at Lisnavagh was boarded up during the war. A combination of exorbitant roof rates, dry rot and lack of cash compelled my grandparents to fell two thirds of the building in 1952 and what you see in the above photograph is the remodeled remainder, formerly the servants quarters.

Bill Rathdonnell died aged 44 in 1959 and my father succeeded to the farm aged 21. By chance my mum Jessica Butler is loosely connected to the Butler family from whom we first rented the land 350 years ago. My parents ran Lisnavagh as a Hidden Ireland guest-house in the 1980s and my eldest brother William and his wife Emily now run it as a wedding venue. They also have a timber business famed for a chopping board called the Bunbury Board.

And so now when I watch my two toddler daughters scampering around Lisnavagh’s meadows, I calculate that they are 25 generations on from the Baron de St. Pierre and eleven since the first Benjamin Bunbury settled in County Carlow. And when I look at the portraits, I know them nearly all by name and they no longer scare me at all.

Further details about all the above characters can be found here.


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